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Monday, June 12, 2017

The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love by Per J. Andersson

Oneworld Publications,  272 pages, $19.99 (trade paperback) (c2015, Eng. ed., 2017)
Translated from Swedish by Anna Holmwood

This is not a mystery, except maybe as an example of the mystery of love and optimism.

Initially, “The Amazing Story, etc.” reads like a work of fiction. In fact, the bones of the story are true, and the underlying dialogue and feelings have been supplied to the best of PK & Charlotte Mahanandia’s memories, and converted into moving text by Per J. Andersson.

PK Mahanandia is a member of the untouchable class. As a child, he was humiliated, bullied, and ostracized, just because he was born into a certain caste. As PK himself laboriously (off screen) sometimes pointed out to non-Indians, there are four main castes, but there are thousands — thousands! — of subdivisions of those castes. A few of those subdivisions are untouchables. Their people work with leather, handle the dead, dispose of waste products, and other tasks “beneath” the purview of the rest of the Hindus in India. Yes, “The Amazing Story” is about romantic love but it is also about the complicated community of diverse ethnicities, religions, and communal identities in India. It is briefly about the politicization of discrimination by Indira Gandhi, who tried to legislate away discrimination against the untouchables, as did one of her predecessors, Mohandas Gandhi (no relation).

I kept waiting (not impatiently) for the cycling part of the story to begin. It doesn’t happen until about two-thirds of the way in. That’s because there is so much to say about PK’s life until he meets Charlotte. PK’s journey is bad luck, worse luck, then good luck, talent, and ultimately an ineffable optimism, despite three suicide attempts. In the same breath, metaphorically speaking, I’m going to say that the suicides are not representative of PK’s attitude, nor do they represent the tenor of the book. (Plus, they were obviously unsuccessful.) But what good story doesn’t have its travails?

When PK (Pradyumna Kumar) was quite young, a fortuneteller told him that he would marry a woman from far, far away. She would be a Taurus and own a jungle. Mysticism is part of the book, but not a huge part. For example, after PK’s mother dies, she occasionally advises him though visions. And PK’s love for Charlotte is the result of a love-at-first-sight meeting. There is spirituality but there is a naturalness to it. (And, by the way, Charlotte is a Taurus and her family owns a forest in Sweden.)

I guess I’ve gone on about this book because it is a sweet story, smoothly translated. PK learned to speak English in India, so I've watched an interview of him in English. He worked hard to learn Swedish. He has been living with Charlotte in Sweden for over forty years. They have two grown children. If this story had been told back in the 70s or 80s, it wouldn’t have had the same impact. Knowing that Charlotte and PK, the untouchable, have been successful in Sweden and in fact have provided education and infrastructure support to PK’s little village in India makes the story that much sweeter. It gives me hope that people can overcome extreme prejudice against them. PK used his talent and obvious capacity for learning to keep moving forward in life. That’s worth a book or two, surely.

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